CORVALLIS - A new project on the Fremont National Forest near Lakeview, Ore., will work to thin the forests, reduce fire risks, protect jobs, produce electricity from biomass thinning, and form a model for other collaborations that merge the needs and interests of industry, government and environmental groups.
The College of Forestry at Oregon State University will join Lakeview County Commissioners in convening potential partners in the initiative, called the Lakeview Biomass Project.
Local leaders, working through Lake County Resources Initiative, are sponsoring the project. And last January, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski designated this work as an Oregon Solutions project, assuring participation of his staff and appropriate state agencies.
"If this project works the way we anticipate, there will be many benefits, for forest protection, private industry, local jobs, water resources, fish and wildlife," said Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry. "But more than that, we believe we can establish a model for more efforts of this type that would be relevant to millions of acres in Central and Eastern Oregon that face similar problems."
Like many areas in this dryer region of Oregon, forests are suffering from overcrowding, decades of fire suppression, insect and disease epidemics, and other concerns that leave them highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire.
It's generally agreed that careful forest thinning can help reduce wildfire risks, improve forest health, and free up water resources for use by fish and other wildlife. But such approaches, which can cost $300 to $1,500 per acre, are often prohibitively expensive unless something can be done to produce revenue that offsets the costs.
In this case, that offset mechanism is going to be a new electric power plant, fueled by wood.
A key collaborator in the initiative is The Collins Companies of Portland, Ore., which operates the Collins-Lakeview forest lands in this area, and one of the last surviving timber mills.
"The Collins Companies for many years have been one of the most progressive forest product companies in the Pacific Northwest, with a long interest in sustainable forestry and innovative forest products solutions," Salwasser said. "They already have a co-generation facility at their northern California operation, using the same technologies and providing the same type of ecological as well as economic benefits."
The new project would construct a larger electrical production plant, fueled by biomass from thinning operations in the nearby national forests, as well as sawmill wood by-products. The plant would feed more substantial amounts of electricity into the regional grid. A sustainable supply of wood from small trees with little market value would be taken from these lands, some for lumber production and some for electricity. The cost of building the new electrical plant would be offset with the sale of electricity and steam from the plant.
Lake County Resources Initiative and The Collins Companies are working with two power companies that finance, build and operate their own plants. The new plant will be located at the Collins Company, Fremont Sawmill, taking their older boiler off line and selling steam to the Fremont Sawmill for their kilns.
Besides the immediate benefits of reducing fire risks, there may be other payoffs, experts say. A major wildfire would release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
But the controlled use of that same wood for lumber or electrical production would be positive in terms of "greenhouse gas" emissions. Future fires would not release the same amount of carbon dioxide, the wood that goes into building products stores carbon, and the biomass that goes into power production offsets the need to produce that energy from fossil fuels.
Local jobs in mills and forest thinning would also be created, fire fighting costs might be reduced, tax revenues would be generated, and substantial water and recreational benefits might result.
"If this works right, there could be a lot of benefits," Salwasser said. "Some will be very tangible, such as the production of wood products, electricity, and local residents who will be able to keep good paying jobs," Salwasser said. "But we're also going to evaluate the whole range of environmental, ecological, wildlife and other payoffs from the project. For instance, there should be carbon sequestration benefits that have global climate implications, and might be turned into carbon credits you could sell."
If the project is effective, it could be used to create a model that other localities could learn from and use, with local adjustments, to suit the needs of their own lands, environmental concerns and forest product companies, Salwasser said. Among other things, strategies such as this are one of the recommendations included in the recent Oregon Strategy for Greenhouse Gas Reductions that has been presented to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
"The model we are developing is one where we will be creating jobs and restoring the forest to more natural conditions," said Jim Walls, executive director of Lake County Resources. "Ecological restoration and economic development can accomplish common goals for the environment and the community. They are not mutually exclusive."
Collaborators on the project include OSU, Portland State University, The Collins Companies, Fremont National Forest, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Forestry, Lake County Resources Initiative, conservation interests, and other groups.
"It's good to see groups that sometimes have been in opposing positions come together to create common ground and land management approaches that everyone can support," Salwasser said.
An agreement committing partners to cooperate in the proposed thinning and construction of the new power plant should be complete within six months, Salwasser said, and work in the forest will begin soon after that.
This is the first Oregon Solutions project that the OSU College of Forestry has become involved in, he said, but others may follow in the future.
Oregon Solutions grew out of the Oregon Sustainability Act of 2001. At first it was operated by the executive branch of state government, and now by PSU. The program promotes a new style of community governance based on collaboration, integration and sustainability. About 20 projects around Oregon are already under way.